Commentators have already been comparing the Biden administration’s expansive legislative agenda to the New Deal ambitions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The mixture of a global pandemic, racial protests, and national political turmoil have ignited a political urgency not seen since the Great Depression.
The American Rescue Plan Act, which was signed into law in March, was one of the most expansive relief efforts in American history. The $1.9 trillion stimulus package included $350 billion in emergency funding, direct payments to tax filers, and a temporary expansion of the child tax credit. The broad, bottom-up spending approach was cheered on by many of those whom journalists, academics, and pundits have dubbed the “religious left.” Many of these faith-based activists and clergy were also the ones who ended up frustrated by a notable exclusion from the final product, a key provision that some have advocated for years to achieve: the $15 minimum-wage hike.
The Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and director of the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary, said, “I believe that the American Rescue Plan Act is a very significant piece of legislation for a number of reasons. One, it puts poverty on the national agenda for the first time in a generation.” And yet, she added, “It doesn’t go far enough.”
Indeed, it was a notable setback for the coalition of faith leaders and workers who’ve been advocating for higher wages for decades and the “Fight for $15” since 2012. Recently, the Poor People’s Campaign has been working to build alliances with labor unions, as well as organizing protests, including in front of the office of Senator Joe Manchin, a centrist Democrat who opposed adding the minimum-wage hike to the covid relief bill. The organization will also hold an online “March on Washington” to advocate for low-wage workers on June 21, as well as an in-person march in 2022. Last year’s online march, during the height of the pandemic, had 2.7 million virtual participants, according to Theoharis.
The Poor People’s Campaign is one of the more visible faith-based players advocating for increased wages, but they are not the only one. Groups like the Labor-Religion Coalition of New York have been pushing for a $10 minimum wage since 2013, and later they encouraged members to support the Fight for 15, which began in 2012 in New York City when a group of McDonald’s workers walked out of a Manhattan franchise location. Nearly 400 fast-food workers around the city joined the protest for higher base wages. Since then, the movement has spread across the country, and faith leaders at the local level have joined.
The $15 minimum wage goes beyond “good economics,” according to Theoharis. “It also that which God is most concerned about: fairness, justice, and treating people the way that God commands us to treat people. And that means paying workers a living wage—treating the workers with the kind of dignity and protection that all God’s children deserve.”
The coalition of faith and labor has a rich and complex history—most notably seen during the rise of the social gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The movement left a powerful imprint on Franklin Roosevelt. The challenges the country faced during the FDR administration offer a striking parallel to the challenges facing the Biden administration today, and only time will tell how the religious influences play out.
The social gospel movement emphasized societal rather than individual salvation, and that faith required changing systems as well as changing hearts. Roosevelt, an Episcopalian, was deeply influenced, along with other key members of his administration, by the teachings of the social gospel. The New Deal was, in some ways, a political outcome of the social gospel’s theological stream.
The minimum wage in the United States came about during Roosevelt’s tenure with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938. The law set the minimum hourly wage at $0.25 cents an hour, outlawed child labor, and introduced the 40-hour work week. The activism of pro-labor clergy of the early twentieth century helped support FDR’s New Deal—and some of these leaders and their influence would morph into the entity that we understand today as the religious left.
“The religious left and labor, more or less, come into fullness at the same time in the 1930s,” said Matthew Pehl, a professor of history at Texas Tech University who studies the relationships among religion, labor, and class. “They have existed before, but they both come to a sort of cultural preeminence, and they gain status and power in the context of the New Deal and the Great Depression.”
To describe the nature of the religious left can be a fraught endeavor; the term itself assumes an existence of a political paradigm (right vs. left) that its alleged members aim to transcend. Religious figures who are assumed to be with the religious left often eschew the term in order to root their convictions on moral and religious grounds, rather than on political principle.
“I self-identify as a disciple of Jesus. I don’t believe that there is a ‘left’ or a ‘right’ to the gospel. There’s just the gospel,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of justice and local church ministries for the United Church of Christ (UCC). Blackmon until recently pastored a church in Florissant, Missouri, and she rose to national prominence after Michael Brown’s death and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement. She has also been active in fighting for the $15 minimum wage. She said, “If you proclaim a gospel that says, ‘We are to heal the sick, we are to feed the hungry, we are to shelter the unhoused and we are to clothe the naked,’ that’s not ‘left’ of what Jesus said, it’s not ‘right’ of what Jesus said. It is what Jesus said.”
L. Benjamin Rolsky, who teaches at Monmouth University and is the author of The Rise and Fall of the Religious Left, noted that the religious left is “diverse” and “cacophonous.” He said, “In general, the term itself is one that’s academic and scholarly and journalistic, but then it’s also meant to describe a number of different types of individuals, who think of religion progressively, which is to say, that it has some sort of social application in public life.”
Themes of societal inclusion and economic equity run through the religious left and its relationship with labor. Rolsky said, “It’s not simply about individual salvation, not about individuals per se. It’s more about a collective—more about systemic conditions—which is why these sorts of movements go back to the social gospel.”
While the New Deal brought progressive religion front-and-center, it also brought backlash in the form of anti-communism activists and the push for a resurgent capitalism. Its echoes are seen today in Christian nationalism and sectors of the GOP. Fr. Charles Coughlin, a parish Catholic priest in Michigan, who supported the New Deal early on, became one of the first religious figures to utilize radio as a means of mass communication, spreading a myriad of anti-Roosevelt, anti-communist, anti-Semitic, and fascist views. Gerald L.K. Smith was a Disciples of Christ minister and protégé of the anti-New Deal populist Huey Long. Smith formed the Christian Nationalist Crusade, an organization that published the anti-Semitic magazine, The Cross and the Flag. Smith unsuccessfully ran for president in 1944 as the candidate of his “America First Party” (later renamed the “Christian Nationalist Party”).
Nine decades separate the 2020s from the 1930s, and much has obviously changed, but the threads of right-wing populism and Christian nationalism were still on display during the insurrection on Capitol Hill in January. Now a Catholic from Pennsylvania with working-class, Irish roots sits in the White House. Perhaps Joe Biden’s presidency reveals the power of those within the religious left, but it has also shown the differences in the landscape that propelled the religious left in the first place.
As Pehl observed, when comparing the power of today’s religious institutions with the 1930s, “none of the infrastructure holds anymore. Even in Catholicism, there is no sort of central, credible voice. In a country where the young people, who are more likely to be leftists, are also the least likely to be religious, what does it even mean to talk about a ‘religious left’ as an important political force?”
The face of labor in the U.S. has also changed. Where once Ford and General Motors were at the center of iconic labor disputes, now the battleground for the U.S. labor movement has moved from manufacturing to retail behemoths like Amazon and jobs in service industries. Prominent members of the Republican Party, as a result of Donald Trump’s 2016 success winning over working-class whites, are pushing to transform the historically anti-union party into a “working-class party.” GOP Sen. Marco Rubio issued public support for the union drive of Amazon workers in Bessemer, Alabama, as a rebuke for Amazon’s “war on working-class values” and as a stance against Silicon Valley’s proclivity toward “wokeism” and pushing out small businesses.
For its part, the religious left has shown its ability to build political power by utilizing the progressive, analytical framework of intersectionality (or as the Rev. William Barber has described it, “moral fusions”). It can link the goals of Black Lives Matter activists with fast-food workers, and climate-change activists with Indigenous leaders.
Barber, who co-chairs the Poor People’s Campaign with Theoharis, said in a February speech, “We cannot address racial equity if we do not address the minimum wage of $15.” The minimum wage hasn’t seen a hike since 2009, when it was raised from $6.55 to $7.25. Barber noted that 57 years ago, Martin Luther King advocated for a $2 minimum wage—the equivalent of more than $15 today. The wage raise was also a campaign promise of Biden’s, but it didn’t pass a parliamentarian ruling during the reconciliation process, which Congress used to pass the covid relief bill. Barber said that process “was nothing but an excuse.” He argued that Democrats could use their simple majority to overturn the parliamentarian ruling. “Let’s be real about this,” he said in his speech. “People turned out to vote and it’s time for this to happen.”
Despite the disappointment, faith activists are pressing ahead on the wage hike. Theoharis highlighted their organization’s Freedom Church for the Poor, which is led by leaders who are most affected by low wages. “It’s not just faith leaders taking moral stances, but it’s being pulled by poor and impacted people to actually look at what are the moral issues of our day, and what does God really say about poverty.” She added, “There’s something different about things when it comes from that perspective.”
Miguel Petrosky is a writer and journalist based in Washington, D.C. His work examines the intersections of religion, politics and culture. You can follow him on Twitter @petrosky_miguel.